Drowning Lessons

[This is a re-written, edited version of Drowning Lessons. Yup. Literally just that.] There's a trick to building yourself back together. Sam mastered it long ago, and now he's got to try and teach his best friend the same thing. Brandon is sinking fast, and all Sam can do is try to teach him to swim.


10. Chapter Nine



to abandon or leave;

to give up hope on



“Sam? Sam! Are you okay?” His head was filled with noise and cotton-wool. He felt stuffy and slow, and the feeling of Cat’s fingernails clawing into his wrist as she tried to pull him up from the pavement. His forearm felt numb, his fingers and thumb on his right hand buzzing.

“Yeah,” he muttered, “I’m fine.” But his mouth tasted as if something had died inside it. He felt as if he was on a rollercoaster- the world was spinning, swooping, moving too fast for him to be able to discern what the blonde shape hovering in his peripheral vision. He could still see Brandon’s dark shape- slouched and battle-weary and retreating rapidly. What had happened to him?

“Listen,” Cat continued, her eyes fixed on the same person Sam’s were. Her bottom lip was almost white, her teeth digging into it as blood welled like a teardrop. “I’m going to call the police, okay? And then we can sort this all out.”

Sam bolted to his feet, wrenching his arm from her grasp. “No. We’ve got to… we might need to… God.” He ran a hand over his face. “We need to catch up with him. We need to… stop him? I don’t know, but we need to do something.”

Cat clutched at his arm again, insistent, irritating, like a cat demanding to be played with. “We can’t, Sam. He’s not Brandon anymore. And he’s dangerous.” Her hair caught the sunlight, setting it aflame, a spectrum of colours dancing through the strands.

“I’ll call you, okay?” Sam clambered to his feet, pretending to miss Cat’s scowl as he began to jog after the person he used to know.

Brandon acknowledged him with a smirk when Sam finally caught up with him. He hadn’t been for a run for a long time, and his heart was racing, battering inside his chest. Brandon was setting a brisk pace, fists clenched into his pockets, even though it was usually Brandon that had to trot along behind Sam whenever they went out together.

What was he supposed to do now? Call the police? Tie Brandon down until he could identify who had done this to him and for what purpose? Something, maybe it was just common sense, told him that they wouldn’t do any good. Brandon couldn’t be on his own. So he followed, silent and terrified, a pounding headache battering against his skull, as Brandon casually made his way into the busier areas, herds of people crushing around them on all sides. It was almost as if they were in a battery farm- animals bred for one purpose, crammed like beans in a can so tightly together that he could feel another’s heartbeat hammering against his own. He followed the person who he’d met years ago, who had been shy at first before loud and impulsive, who had been clever and cocky and undoubtedly beautiful.

And now…

Sam watched Brandon out of the corner of his eye, cataloguing the expressions and masks that flickered past as quickly as a stop-motion film. There was despair, anger, self-loathing, disgust, pleasure, pain, need and hatred, flying around like debris in a tornado. There were a few precious seconds when he could pretend that everything was normal, just like it had been oh so long ago- he’d coat his worry and doubt in a façade of relaxation and comfort, almost falling for it himself at some points- but then Brandon’s expression would mutate into something darker, a sneer curling over his lips or his eyes louring, turning stormy and he couldn’t pretend anymore.  

He’d been missing for months, a classic mystery case: left to order pizza for himself and Cat and simply never returned, wiped from the map like an ink smudge. Even his family had given up on finding him, and Cat had once said that the only reason that anyone would was when the police dogs located a curious scent in an abandoned field.

He’d certainly changed- his shaggy hair had been cut short, military-style, and his eyes seemed darker, colder, like a winter storm. His cheeks were gaunt and his skin was pasty- hanging from his bones just as clothes would hang from a scarecrow. Sam didn’t recognise the clothes- they were scruffy and frayed at the seams, but nothing like the skinny black jeans Brandon would insist on wearing whenever they went out. The jumper appeared two sizes too large for him, too.

They walked for what felt like hours. Maybe it was, maybe it was only minutes. He’d lost track of the time, of where he was, but it didn’t take much to realise that they’d travelled into the darker, dangerous part of the city; it was crime-ridden, and vulgar with its dark corners and unseemly establishments. The buildings were packed together like rats in a laboratory, with dirt rolling from the broken bricks in waves and crawling through the cracks in the pavement like disease. He’d tried talking to Brandon, tried to convince him to walk away and leave, but he hadn’t even deigned to look at him as he continued. This had been a bit of a dilemma until Sam remembered that he couldn’t leave him.

Sam wasn’t stupid enough to ignore the looks he was being given by people weighed down by heavy clothing with faces shrouded by cigarette smoke. He was almost surprised that it took a group of them- five men approximately the same age as him, with faces as lined and hard as corrugated iron- to approach him.

The leader didn’t smile so much as snarl when he was close enough, beanie hat pulled low over his forehead as he stepped smoothly into Brandon’s way, nicotine-stained fingers digging into his forearm. Brandon peered up at him impassively with stone-cold eyes.

“What have you got on you, friend?” The smile was shark like, cold and calculating, his teeth dyed a poisonous mustard yellow. Brandon didn’t say anything as he met the dead gaze with his own.  The man’s smile grew and it was venomous- deadly and dangerous. “I’m not too sure you’re telling the truth.”

Brandon’s eyes flashed and he held out his arms as a challenge. “Come check me over then. I’m sure you’re just dying to.”

“I wouldn’t touch you if you paid me, freak,” he spat and Brandon sneered again.

“Of course you wouldn’t. That’s what all cowards are like.”

There was a crack as the stranger grabbed Brandon’s front and pushed him into the wall. The crack was from Brandon’s head smacking into the bricks, and when he was pulled away Sam noticed the barest hints of blood that clung to the stones like ants over spilt orange juice. Brandon hadn’t even blinked. He was still smiling. There were arms wrapped around his own before Sam even had chance to move. “The hell’s your problem, freak? You wanna call me a coward again?” the man hissed, venom hissing over chapped lips like saliva. “Go on- I dare you.”

It felt like his arms were about to be ripped from their sockets as he struggled. “Brandon, just apologise! Don’t be an idiot! He twisted around. “He didn’t mean it!”

“Sam.” Brandon’s eyes were wide, pupils dilated. Such a different person from the unemotional creature that had been in Brandon only instances before. “Don’t. Give me a minute. Please. Just sixty seconds.”

One of the men holding him snickered. “Yeah. You just watch, pretty boy.”

What was this? A suicide attempt? If so, it was a peculiar one at that. Sam had expected Brandon to lash out, just like he’d done to Sam himself, but instead he hung lastly, his loose and passive frame held up by large, chapped fists. The men behind him smelt of cigarette smoke and alcohol and sweat. A crowd had begun to form on the other side of the street- a waiting audience, a pack of hunting dogs, ready for entertainment and thirsty for blood. He wanted to do something, but he fumbled with his words, unsure, and his silence was seemingly mistaken for acquiesce as the first fist landed in Brandon’s stomach.

And although it went against every atom of his being, Sam held back.

The man grinned wolfishly and landed another blow, this one striking the side of his face. Brandon shuddered, coughed, and Sam noticed the red staining his lips. It almost looked like raspberry juice. And then there were three on him- punching and laughing and keeping one eye on Sam as if they were actually worried that he’d do something.

Twenty one… twenty two… twenty three… how did sixty seconds seem so much longer than it had ever felt before?

Through the haze, he saw Brandon grin, his teeth stained scarlet as blood dripped down his chin. A fist sunk into his abdomen and he groaned, but it didn’t sound entirely like pain and a thought flashed into the forefront of his mind before he threw it back again. It couldn’t be… wouldn’t be… anything like that.

Fifty six… fifty seven… fifty eight…

In the last moment there was an elbow swinging towards Brandon’s head and he tried to move out of its way, but not fast enough. It caught him beneath his chin and he spat out a yell before dropping to the ground, motionless, like a discarded angel thrown from heaven.  There was a bark of a laugh behind him as the leader turned to Sam, eyes alight with sadistic brutality. “Your turn,” he snarled, as Brandon hurled himself to his feet and threw himself at him like a wolf.

Sam almost didn’t want to look. Brandon was moving far too fast, spinning, ducking, clawing… this wasn’t like anything he’d ever seen in the movies or even back in Somalia. This was pure animal viciousness, ruthlessness, instincts controlling his limbs like a marionette.  It took a moment for Sam to realise that Brandon was laughing; a high-pitched snarl that burst into the air and set his nerves tingling.

They’d all began to run and Brandon let them. He was breathing hard, pupils dilated and a childish, delighted smile was plastered onto his face. “Brandon?” Sam murmured hesitantly, a hand held out almost as a peace offering, as the crowds began to disperse, bloodlust quenched, their muttering twisting into the air like cigarette smoke.

“Sam?” Brandon’s voice cracked. “What am I doing?” Sam reached out, fingers winding into the rough material of his jumper, but Brandon reeled back, eyes wide and suddenly fearful. “Don’t touch me! I’ll hurt you too! D-don’t touch me!”

Where had this change come from? What switch had been flicked to turn an unrecognizable animal into this broken kid slumped at his feet? “Brandon… what are you…” He gently lifted his head and dabbed away at the blood with his sleeve. His face would be a mess soon enough, plastered with bruises, and he seemed to have lost at least one tooth.

“The angel made me do it, Sam.” Brandon muttered, a small tear leaking from the corner of his eye, and Sam wanted to cry with him. He wanted to break down and sob, despite the few people still watching with a perverse form of awe, and kill whoever had done this to his best friend, the one person he’d die for. “He’s still here… in my head… and he makes me do this.”

That was the last thing he said as Sam dragged him to a taxi and into his apartment, locking Brandon securely inside his bedroom as he called Cat back.


Brandon had been awake for a long time, but he didn’t make enough sounds for anyone else to realise that yet. They were talking outside… Sam and… crap, what’d her name been? He’d dated her, hadn’t he? Cat. Yeah, Cat. They were talking in hushed voices, almost as if they were terrified that he would know what they were talking about and tear them both to bloody shreds.

Of course, the instant he considered it, his entire system was suddenly roaring with a ‘hey! That’s a great idea! Let’s do it!’

No. That was a bad thing to do. He didn’t want to hurt them- or maybe he did, he didn’t know anymore. Still, he knew it was all wrong. He knew that everything he’d once been had been flipped onto its head and thrown into a pot, where it’d been twisted and stirred and blackened with soot and blood, until his sanity and humanity were overpowered by the new side of him that was so dark and cruel that it almost made his head hurt just thinking about it.

More words form the other side of the door broke through his thoughts and he scrambled as far away from them as he could, practically clawing into the headboard of the bed like a cornered animal. No no no. This was not good. There was a growing spear of pain writhing through his left hand, where he’d begun to pull back against his own fingernail. It hurt, certainly, but not enough to rip it off, and not enough to enjoy it. It brought a moment’s focus- a shift away from the red sea he was submerged in, as if Moses had thrown it aside with a sweep of his hand, granting him an instant’s reprieve.

“Please don’t do this.”

That was Sam’s voice. The sound was rough, grating and far too loud, just like it always did when he was holding back tears. Brandon tried not to grin at that, the thought of another person in pain,. He didn’t want to. But he did. Sammy…

What had happened to him? He needed to stop.

Don’t be like that.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t. This is too much. Too much for both of us.” That was Cat. He remembered her; she was pretty and bubbly and kind, and Sam had worked with her before he introduced her to Brandon.

“You can’t leave me with him. I can’t help him by myself.”

Oh damn, how he wanted to hear that voice break and scream and beg.


Oh yes.

He pressed himself against the wall, burying his head into one of the pillows, just to block out the noise. He couldn’t. Everything was too loud, or maybe he was just too alert, too open to the world and the torment around him.

“No one can help him, Sam. That’s… that’s not Brandon anymore. I don’t know what’d happened to him, but you need to get out while you can. Call the police, get him away and get on with your life. It’s the only way. This is freaky and not in any way understandable. You need to speak to someone, get him proper help.”

Maybe he could ignore it. Maybe he could ignore it and he’d revert back to who he was, like passing through a mirror. A wave of sickness flopped inside his stomach and he knew with a sudden, certainty that was not what he wanted. He liked being the angel’s creation. He wasn’t Brandon Hope. He was the angel’s skin and bones, just like the others had been; his instrument, his bag of fun.

Why didn’t they just kill him instead? Wouldn’t that be better for everyone?

Because death is boring.

The voice needed to get out of his head. No, wait, it needed to stay. Stay and play and stay. Dammit, it needed to go. It needed to leave him alone. No, don’t leave him- them- alone. He couldn’t be alone. He couldn’t be alone.

Nope. Nope nope nope.

Oh yes.

“Listen… if that’s what you’re going to do…” She was talking again. Why wouldn’t they be quiet? They needed to be quiet! She was sighing. “I won’t tell anyone. You don’t deserve trouble, Sam. You don’t deserve this, but if you’re going to try to help him, then I won’t tell anyone. Not now, at least. Okay?”

She was leaving him. Okay, that was good.

No, because now they couldn’t hurt her.

That was a good thing. But Sam was staying. Sam was going to try to break him apart again.

Yes. If anyone could do it, it was Sam. Sam would never give up on him.

Brandon… No, I have to stop you. How do I stop you? Death, yes, but death is so booooring. What about for both of them? If Brandon died, then maybe the other part of him would too.

Yes. NO.

He didn’t realise that he was screaming. 

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